book review: the lost

The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million is about Daniel Mendelsohn and his quest to find out about his great uncle’s family who were killed by the Nazis. In the course of the book he talks about talking to old Jewish people in New York and Florida and Australia and Bolekhov and Israel and Sweden. It’s a story that was about putting a human face on these people who died and on the people who didn’t.

I have to say I didn’t really love the book. My friend who gave it to me did love it. She’s a historian though, and this digging into all of these mundane bits of memory is the kind of thing she likes. I could completely see why she liked the book and its searching and its circular storytellingness, but I couldn’t get into it. I think the main thing that put me off was the tone through the whole thing that only people who really really care about history are good people. And while I think history is interesting and you can’t forget about it, I’d rather not spend my days wallowing in it. Here’s a quote:

When I was growing up, I would look at my father’s father, and then look at my mother’s father, and the contrast between them was responsible for forming, in my childish mind, a kind of list. In one column there was this: Jaegers, Jewishness, Europe, languages, stories. In the other there was this: Mendelsohns, atheists, America, English, silence. I would compare and contrast these columns, when I was much younger, and even then I would wonder what kind of present you could possibly have without knowing the stories of your past.

Maybe it’s just me being defensive, but I’m so much more on the silent English atheists side of that dichotomy (in terms of my Mennonite heritage) and his condescension towards us just grated. And it grated through the whole book. Plus the writing was so melodramatic it all just turned me off.

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